Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Temple Goers

It’s hard to know what is more impressive a novel that piles originality on top of originality or a novel that follows a well-worn path and yet remakes the familiar fresh. I guess ultimately it is whichever of those two things you are lucky enough to be reading and enjoying at the moment.  

The Temple Goers follows the familiar path with surprising results. The plot is pure thriller. Two male friends in Delhi, one who lives an enviable life of parties and luxury and one, who knows the seamy side of Delhi better than he should, find a body in a canal. One of the two friends is accused of murder and the other becomes amateur detective to clear his friend. Not much new there, right? We could just have had a good mystery with a lot of exotic local color but rather than being satisfied with that author, Aatish Taseer, also gives us a sharply observed exploration of modern life among the upwardly mobile in a country where the past and traditions have as big a place in everyday life as pop culture does here in the U.S.

This is not a romanticized Delhi of bazaars, prophets and endlessly spicy foods; this is the good, the bad and the ugly in Delhi. In telling his story about life in the eighth largest city in the world, an ancient city in an economic boom, Taseer relies on some of the old fashioned elements of good storytelling: friendships that cross class boundaries, tested loyalties, betrayal, government corruption and the tensions between tradition and modern values and the haves and the have-nots.

Taseer has not created sympathetic heroes for the reader to readily identify with in The Temple Goers. His characters are self-absorbed and self-conscious. In other words they are realistic. Potential reasons and explanations for the character’s behavior and beliefs are offered up within the story but Taseer stays away from offering up a simplified view of a complicated culture. Taseer keeps the reader invested in his characters with his elaborate, racy plot, his portrait of Delhi and the tone of the novel that swings from comedy of manners to scathing condemnation often while still on the same topic.

The Temple Goers is a mesmerizing reading experience by a writer capable of writing a novel of ideas encased in a murder mystery. As impressive as I found this book I do feel compelled to add a caveat to my review. Despite the impressive quality of the writing, occasionally there is an ugliness in The Temple Goers that is off putting and gets in the way of enjoying the book. I have struggled with whether or not I feel that the level of unpleasantness is gratuitous, an important element in the story or maybe a cultural thing that I cannot wrap my head around. I’m still undecided but isn't it a wonderful thing that I am still thinking about it?

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